Imagination, Literary Fiction, and Virtue

 James O. Young, FRSC, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria. He recently edited a collection of essays,   Semantics of Aesthetic Judgements  (Oxford, 2017) , and some of his essays on philosophy of music has been translated into Spanish as   Filosofía de la Música. Respuestas a Peter Kivy ( Calanda, 2017) .

James O. Young, FRSC, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria. He recently edited a collection of essays, Semantics of Aesthetic Judgements (Oxford, 2017), and some of his essays on philosophy of music has been translated into Spanish as Filosofía de la Música. Respuestas a Peter Kivy (Calanda, 2017).

A post by James O. Young.

Philosophers from Aristotle onwards have held that reading literary fiction can make people more virtuous. Nussbaum (1990) was among the first contemporary philosophers to maintain that literary fiction is a valuable source of moral knowledge. On her view, reading literary fiction assists readers to understand social situations and to understand the complexities of making moral decisions. Similarly, Currie (1995) believes that imagining ourselves in the situations of fictional characters can lead to moral growth. Other philosophers, such as Vogler (2007), have been sceptical about the suggestion that reading literary fiction has any moral benefits. She believes that time spent reading literary fiction is, from a moral point of view, wasted. The only way to become more virtuous she believes, is to perform virtuous acts. She writes that, for example, “if I seek to cultivate generosity, I give….Since silent reading induces retreat from my circumstances, silent reading is the opposite of habituating myself to noticing what’s going on in my world by noticing.” (Vogler 2007: 33) The hypothesis that reading literary fiction makes readers more virtuous is an empirical hypothesis. The most recent empirical evidence suggests that it is true.

The psychological literature suggests that reading literary fiction leads to increased affective empathy (sympathy for other persons), increased cognitive empathy (the ability to see matters from another’s perspective), and increased prosocial behaviour. For example, Johnson (2012) found that readers of a short story that modeled prosocial behaviour experienced increased affective empathy. Those who experienced higher degrees of transportation into the story showed higher degrees of empathy. Increased empathy translated into increased prosocial behavior: those test subjects who experienced the highest degree of empathy were almost twice as likely to engage in a prosocial task. Readers who were transported were particularly likely to display affective empathy and prosocial behaviour. (Transportation is the feeling of being lost in a book. William James was among the first psychologists to speak of this phenomenon. Referring to Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe, he wrote that, “Whilst absorbed in the novel, we turn our backs on all other worlds, and, for the time, the Ivanhoe-world remains our absolute reality.” (James 1891: vol. II, 292–3). For a recent exploration of transportation, see Samuel Kampa's post.)

Other researchers have found that habitual reading of fiction is associated with increased sensitivity and social skills. (Mar et al. 2006) Koopman (2015) also found that familiarity with literary fiction is correlated with increased affective empathy and prosocial behaviour. Test subjects read either a work of literary fiction, a first person narrative, or an expository text about depression or grief. Those who read the work of literary fiction and the first person narrative were more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour. Habitual readers of literary fiction were inclined to be in favour of insurance coverage for treatment for depression.

Literary fiction seems to increase empathy by allowing readers to enter imaginatively into the lives of fictional people. Having imaginatively walked a mile in the shoes of other people, readers’ empathy can be extended to people unlike themselves. For example, straight subjects who read a story in which the protagonist is revealed, late in the story, to be gay display significantly more positive attitudes towards gays than subjects in control groups. A similar experiment in which the protagonist is African-American led subjects to display fewer racist attitudes. (Kaufman and Libby 2012) Another study indicated that readers transported into a story about a Muslim woman had increased empathy for Muslims, compared to those who did not read the story. (Johnson 2013) In another study, subjects read a chapter from Malikia Mokkeddem’s novel L’Interdite (1994). This novel is concerned with the sexist treatment of an Algerian woman who returns to her homeland. Another group read an essay on the condition of women in Algeria. (Hakemulder 2000) Readers of the chapter from L’Interdite were significantly more concerned about, and inclined to resist, the condition of women in Algeria than were readers of the essay. The opportunity to see the world from the perspective of another human, to be transported, is plausibly held to be the factor that makes literary fiction contribute to increased empathy and prosocial attitudes. When readers are transported by a work of fiction, they enter more fully into the imagined world. This helps to explain why transported readers enjoy the most marked benefits of literary fiction.

The results of these studies are supported by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. Our brains have what psychologists call the “default network,” a collection of regions of the brain that are responsible for simulation. Simulations include mental constructions of social contexts while reading. If reading literary fiction involves simulating experience of social situations, and practicing dealing with social situations, we would expect that the default network would be engaged. This turns out to happen. In a recent study, test subjects underwent fMRI scans while reading passages drawn from novels and a variety of non-fiction sources, including newspapers, magazines, and self-help books. (Tamir et al. 2016) Vivid passages about the mental states of persons engaged the default network in a way that newspaper articles, for example, did not.

Someone might object that experimenters have mistaken the direction of the causal arrows. Perhaps reading literary fiction does not make people empathetic and prosocial. Rather, perhaps empathetic and prosocial people read literary fiction. The possibility that the causal arrows lead from being empathetic to reading literary fiction has been anticipated and ruled out.       

In one experiment, the empathy of test subjects was measured prior to the experiment, immediately after they had read a text (either a work of fiction or, in the control group, a work of non-fiction), and one week after reading the text. In this way, the experimenters could control for prior empathy, and rule out the hypothesis that increased empathy post-experiment can be explained by higher empathy pre-experiment. (Bal and Veltkamp 2013) Another experiment found that openness is the only personality trait associated with reading fiction. After controlling for openness, the degree of people’s exposure to fiction predicts they will perform better on a test of empathy. (Mar, Oatley, and Peterson 2009)

Among the most striking discoveries is that reading literary fiction in particular, and not popular or genre fiction, has moral benefits. The imaginary worlds of literary fiction are the product of careful observation of the real world. Although imaginary, these worlds are, as Du Bos (1719/1755) would say, vraisemblable. They are importantly like the real world. The characters are not Mary (or Marty) Sues. (A Mary Sue (masculine: Marty Sue) is an implausible, over-idealized character.) The worlds of literary fiction are not over-simplified and full of caricatures. As a result, literary fiction provides readers with a better opportunity to practice simulation of social behaviour than does popular fiction. Since the worlds of literary fiction are vraisemblable, negotiating them is like negotiating the real world.         

Perhaps not all works of literary fiction have good moral effects, and perhaps not everyone can become more virtuous by reading literary fiction. Further studies are needed to confirm the initial results. This said, the current psychological results suggest that philosophers were right when they proposed that literary fiction can make readers more virtuous. There are benefits to being lost in a book.


Bal, P. Matthijs and Martijn Veltkamp. (2013) ‘How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation,’ PLoS ONE8(1): e55341.

Currie, Gregory. (1995) ‘The moral psychology of fiction,’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 73.2, 250—59.

Du Bos, Jean-Baptiste. (1719/1755) Réflextions critiques sur la poësie et sur la peinture, Paris, Pissot.

Hakemulder, Jèmeljan. (2000), The Moral Laboratory: Experiments Examining the Effects of Reading Literature on Social Perception and Moral Self-Concept,  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

James, William. (1891) Principles of Psychology, London: MacMillan.

Johnson, Dan R. (2012) ‘Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behaviour, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions,’ Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 150—55.

Johnson, Dan R. (2013), ‘Transportation into literary fiction reduces prejudice against and increases empathy for Arab-Muslims,’ Scientific Study of Literature, 3.1 77–92.

Kaufman, Geoff F. and Libby, Lisa K. (2012) ‘Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103(1), 1–19.

Mar, Raymond A., Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsh, Jennifer dela Paz, and Jordan B. Peterson. (2006) ‘Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social abilities, and the simulation of social worlds,’ Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694—712.

Mar, Raymond A., Keith Oatley, and Jordan B. Peterson. (2009) ‘Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining the outcomes,’ Communications, 34, 407—28.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1990) Love’s Knowledge, New York: Oxford University Press.

Tamir, Diana I, Andrew B. Bricker, David Dodell-Feder, and Jason P. Mitchell. (2016) ‘Reading fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network,’ Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11.2, 215—224.

Vogler, Candace. (2007) ‘The Moral of the Story,’ Critical Inquiry, 34.1, 5—35.